Previous | Next

Spring 1997 · Vol. 26 No. 1 · pp. 100–103 

Book Review

Mennonite Entrepreneurs

Calvin W. Redekop, Stephen C. Ainlay, and Robert Siemens. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 291 pages.

Reviewed by Donald J. Isaac

Perhaps no other saga in our Mennonite culture has been the subject of more talk than the business fortunes or struggles of a fellow brother or (in rare situations) sister in the church. The “Dallas” TV sitcom had far more glitz and intrigue, but the fascination with money, {101} personality, the drive for success, failure, and lifestyle has been the grist of many a conversation in the church parking lot, or early morning coffee at the cafe.

Entrepreneurs in the Faith Community profiles the business history of eleven individuals, all ethnic Mennonites, from both the Swiss and Russian traditions. The editors, each with doctorates in history and numerous publications concerning Mennonite history to their credit, are well-qualified for this project. Each case study was written by a different author; in some cases a relative. Three of the studies concern women, a small ratio, but probably higher than the real-world ratio of female Mennonite entrepreneurs. Two women were involved in profit-making businesses, while the third was instrumental in establishing the Bethel Deaconess Home and Hospital in Newton, Kansas.

The subjects were chosen, Redekop tells us, “to present the widest possible array of historical and sociological dimensions of Mennonite entrepreneurs . . . considering the time period, region, gender, church conference, and type of business” (p. 12). Their business interests range among real estate, agribusiness, retailing, publishing, coal mining, and construction. In general, these are larger entities, and in most cases became corporations. What we do not know is how representative these stories are of business ventures in North American Mennonite cultures. An attempt was made to make each profile “as interesting and entertaining as possible with its own theme and particular character.” And though there is no attempt to glorify success and minimize failures, weaknesses, and tensions (including those within families), the question remains whether these stories represent only the larger, more public entrepreneurial model.

Several themes common to western societies run through the stories: poor immigrant beginnings, struggle with different dominant cultures, and risk, competition, and reward. But common also are themes coming out of the Anabaptist culture: religious commitment and commitment to enterprise, community mores and the demands of competition, and the whole notion of how to handle success. Like “Dallas,” it is public success that attracts so much attention among a peoplehood, who for generations found identity in smallness, common beliefs, and mutuality. Several of the subjects’ businesses became quite large—dominant in their industry.

What emerges from these growth stories is a struggle to harmonize risk and innovation with a genuine desire to be faithful to God’s demands on resources, and to reconcile the perceptions of distrust from fellow church members. In some cases, particularly in older Mennonite {102} communities, there appears to be more sensitivity to “bending” and adopting one’s entrepreneurial style to the norms of the church. Entrepreneurs from both groups (Swiss and Russian) were frustrated with the gap in understanding among church people on the role of profits in growing businesses.

Talking about money has never been easy in the church except to ask for more offerings. Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) is the single Mennonite-related organization that draws together men and women to talk about business and church, and to do so without discomfort. Several of the entrepreneurs chronicled in this book have been active in MEDA. The editors’ contribution in giving us these stories is to expand the MEDA role of understanding and communication about church people who wish to become involved in risk-oriented ventures and who want very much to remain faithful to historical church teachings.

If questions remain after reading Entrepreneurs in the Faith Community, as they did for this reviewer, one turns to Mennonite Entrepreneurs, also by Cal Redekop, professor emeritus Conrad Grebel College, and by Stephen Ainlay, a sociologist at the College of Holy Cross, with the assistance of writer Robert Siemens. It is in this book that one finds the historical and sociological framework within which men and women have found work for four hundred years.

The book consists of ten chapters organized into three sections: (1) Mennonites and Entrepreneurial Activity, (2) The Ethos and Experience of the Mennonite Entrepreneur, and (3) Theoretical Reflections. Part one introduces the reader to the historical Anabaptist-Mennonite culture, theology, and sociology, and outlines the tension between religion and economic activity. In part two, Redekop draws upon quantitative studies from his own earlier research (Kauffman/Redekop study), the two Church Member Profile studies (CMP), and his own 1985-86 study of one hundred Mennonite entrepreneurs selected from major Mennonite geographical concentrations in Canada and the United States.

The interviews and written responses provide a fascinating glimpse into the struggles and frustrations of men and women trying to build an enterprise outside the church, but within its ethos. In many cases it does not work and separation or alienation occurs. Redekop reminds us that while a “local” Mennonite entrepreneur “serves the Mennonite community and is dependent on its good will for economic survival” (p. 45), the “cosmopolitan” entrepreneur “has transferred his dependence onto the larger impersonal market economy and (his/her) lifestyle and business practices tend more to conform to the host culture’s norms” {103} (p. 45).

While many Mennonite entrepreneurs have conformed to a perceived church community context, in others the Mennonite ethos itself is changing. In chapter six, “Heroic Conformity and Alienation,” Redekop leads us through the roadkill of this change with statistics from CMPs 1 and 2, his own research, and sociological analysis.

The modern Mennonite congregation “no longer looks very much like the ethical community of early Anabaptism but more resembles a sort of ‘pit stop’ for emotional refueling and identity reinforcement” (p. 145). Thus, the significant growth of entrepreneurs in all major Mennonite denominations reflects an accommodation by both parties: the individual to the latent call of community and peoplehood, and the congregation’s move toward its own theology of individualism, growth, and success.

Entrepreneurs in the Faith Community can be and should be read by high school and college-age readers as well as by their parents. These are faith stories of men and women taking risk positions with life and resources, and all readers can identify with such heroes. Mennonite Entrepreneurs is a scholarly work written for academics, pastors, and seasoned businesspeople.

Both books make important contributions to those interested in understanding more fully the call of business and church. And, perhaps more important, they provide a way of thinking about the evolutionary shifts in theology and culture within our churches well under way.

Donald J. Isaac, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Business,
Chair of the Department of Business Administration
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

Previous | Next